David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

What Elizabeth Warren Can Teach Us About Teaching

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Image: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

Elizabeth Warren, it turns out, was a great professor. That’s one of the key takeaways from Rebecca Traister’s fascinating essay, published last month, on the subject of what Warren’s pedagogy means for her political prospects. Traister quotes former students who still rave about Warren’s courses. But the piece is interesting for more than just its recap of her teaching excellence,

By framing her political approach as part of her pedagogy, the essay uncovers insights valuable to anyone trying to become a better teacher.

Traister’s argument is easy to sum up: You might think that Warren’s "professorial" manner would be a liability on the campaign trail, but she was actually an unusually good professor, and the way that she was a good professor might be the key to her success as a candidate and a leader.

But something else struck me about the essay: The way teaching is described — by Warren, but also by Traister — gets to the heart of what it means to be an inclusive teacher today, and draws a very thick line between teaching for social justice and pursuing political action for social justice.

In teaching law courses at six major universities, including 16 years at Harvard Law School, Warren relied on the Socratic method. That method means different things in different disciplines, but in a law-school context, it usually means the professor calls on students and relentlessly grills them, one at a time, to reveal their academic weaknesses.

Nowadays, many academics, including me, find that mode of teaching problematic. For instance, what are the other students supposed to be doing while the one unlucky sap is being questioned? It is, as well, an approach rooted in an older, now outmoded conception of the college classroom — where the professor is the intimidating expert rooting out "weak" students who don’t make the grade.

Indeed, Traister refers to "the seeming paradox of a woman known as a bold political progressive adhering to an old-fashioned, rule-bound approach to teaching." But it turns out that there was nothing paradoxical at all because the way Warren conceived of — and carried out — the Socratic method was actually deeply progressive.

In essence, Warren’s approach was borne of her concern that the classroom tends to reproduce societal inequalities. By only calling on students who raised their hands, the professor limited class discussion to those who traditionally felt the most comfortable speaking up.

"The reason I never took volunteers," Warren tells Traister, "is when you take volunteers, you’re going to hear mostly from men." (In recent years, that very phenomenon has led many instructors to adopt the "progressive stack" in class discussions. The instructor makes a list of all those who want to contribute to a discussion, and then first calls on the more marginalized students.)

Instead, she adopted a cold-calling approach that sought to involve as many students as possible in every class period. Traister quotes one of Warren’s TAs, Chrystin Ondersma, whose sole job during class was to keep track of who had spoken, and who hadn’t: "The whole idea was that she wanted everybody in the classroom to participate." Ten minutes before the end of each class, Ondersma would hand Warren a notecard with the names of students who hadn’t gotten a chance to speak yet, and she would make sure to call on them.

As I noted in a previous column, cold-calling on students without waiting for them to raise their hands makes a lot of instructors uncomfortable. It can feel antagonistic and cruel. But Warren’s practice illustrates how cold-calling can be a central part of a caring and inclusive teaching practice: Instead of a tool to catch students off guard or embarrass them in front of the class, it can be an invitation to participate, an expression of interest in their ideas.

Before an exam, whenever a student would come to her office hours with a question, Warren would ask the student to write it down so she could send it out, along with her answer, to every student. Here, again, her awareness of the inequalities baked into typical teaching practices prompted a different tactic. Traister quotes one of Warren’s students: "It was very important to her that people were not going to have any structural advantage because they were the kind of person who knew to come to talk to a professor in office hours."

Her commitment to helping all students in her classroom, especially those who usually have the deck stacked against them, was, at heart, an inclusive teaching practice. She consciously crafted her teaching approach to reach as many students as possible. You can spot the descendants of such practices, Traister points out, in Warren’s presidential campaign.

For instance, you may have seen videos of Warren calling people to thank them for a $50 donation to her campaign. Sure it’s a gimmick. But as Traister points out: Warren’s practice of telephoning "minor" donors ensures that she hears from more than just the big spenders, and mirrors her cold-calling tactic in class to get students participating beyond the usual suspects.

"It’s the same principle," Traister writes. "The people coming in with structural advantages — money, confidence, experience navigating intimidating institutions or plying the powerful — should not have more access than those who don’t."

Or take Warren’s wealth tax. When she first started pitching the idea, audiences seemed resistant. It sounded radical. To persuade town-hall attendees that such a policy proposal was in their best interest, Warren began with a common teaching technique: Elicit their prior knowledge. "Anybody in here own a home or grow up where a family owned a home?," she asked. When a number of hands went up, Warren reminded them that homeowners pay property tax. With that common ground established, she was able to explain the wealth tax in a way that people could connect with their own lives: "I want it to be on the stock portfolio, the diamonds, the Rembrandt, and the yachts."

For Warren, as she told Traister, teaching is "fundamentally about figuring out where the student is and how far can I bring them from where they are." She is betting that her teaching strategy — building on what students already know — can also work well in the public sphere.

What all of these parallels say to me is that there’s much that our politicians can learn from the wisdom of the scholarship of teaching and learning.

If learning is the work of students — if we can’t make a student learn — then the instructor’s task is to create the conditions within which that work is more likely to happen. Likewise, if real political change is the work of citizens — not a lone politician, but many, many citizens changing the political reality — then maybe the political leader’s task is to create the conditions in which that work is more likely to happen. Elizabeth Warren can’t make the American public do the work of banding together to defeat corruption, inequality, and injustice. But maybe she can use inclusive-teaching methods to help us come to the conclusion, on our own, that action toward that end is necessary, and possible.

For higher education, Warren’s approach confirms the power and potential of inclusive, student-centered teaching in the college classroom. These methods are based on sturdy research on how students learn best, but they follow, first of all, from the choices of the faculty member.

As instructors, we must choose to be committed to all students, to put their development first, to be led by them, rather than the other way around. This is a political choice — not because we’re trying to get our students to vote a certain way, but because our job is to help students believe in their own possibilities, in their own agency, within a system that far too frequently denies them any.

We may not be asking our students, as Warren does her supporters, to help "put power back in the hands of the people." But, via inclusive-teaching techniques, we can help our students realize the power that is already in their hands. We can take them seriously as human beings with potential. We can take seriously their desire to improve themselves and gain access to new opportunities on their own terms. We can commit ourselves to helping them help themselves, even if they don’t always succeed in the ways we envision. That, to me, is a campaign worth supporting.


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